Expectations and realities: “Being in the most advanced country in the world, why can’t we do [blank]”?

One person stuck on I-95 overnight due to snow and conditions responded to the situation this way:

Photo by Jonathan Meyer on Pexels.com

“Not one police (officer) came in the 16 hours we were stuck,” she said. “No one came. It was just shocking. Being in the most advanced country in the world, no one knew how to even clear one lane for all of us to get out of that mess?”

I have seen some version of this quote in numerous contexts in recent months. It could reference:

-health care

-US military and political involvement in Afghanistan

-infrastructure issues

-conducting elections

-responding to natural disasters

-passing basic legislation

The expectation is that the United States is highly advanced or the most advanced country in the world. The country boasts a history of innovation and pragmatism, a powerful military, and an influential set of ideals. If all of this is true, why then can the United States not address such basic issues (in the eyes of the questioner)?

Implicit in this question is whether the United States exists amid a massive contradiction. For all of those markers of success, perhaps the country is not as advanced as its people think. Perhaps there are difficult issues to solve, complex concerns that we do not know how to or do not have the will to address.

Take the above example of unexpected bad weather. Large highway backups during snowstorms are not unknown in the United States. They occur even in areas more accustomed to cold and snow. Sure, local responses can differ. But, these systems are complex with natural forces, hundreds of autonomous drivers, governments and private actors responding, and the relatively long distances Americans are used to traveling on a daily basis.

All of the issues mentioned above as something an advanced country should be able to address are not simple. The expectation that a country should always easily get it right might be unrealistic. Even so, if a large number of people think the issue should be easily solvable, this quickly becomes a problem when it is not.

Is American unity only possible when confronting a common threat? Thoughts on reading about the Revolutionary War

After completing the second of two long academic books on the Revolutionary War period and teaching about groups, organizations, and social networks recently in Introduction to Sociology, I had a thought about what can bring residents of the United States together: a common outside threat or enemy. For many groups, knowing what or who they are against is helpful in forging their own identity and connections.

Photo by Sawyer Sutton on Pexels.com

Before, during, and after the American War of Independence, the colonists on the Eastern seaboard of the United States banded together to register complaints, revolt, fight, and then form a new country. This was no easy task; different groups had immigrated to the United States, ties to particular colonies were often stronger than any sense of common cause, and regional differences mattered. During the war, not all residents in the United States supported the colonial side and a good number fought for the British. After the war, it took significant effort to develop a centralized government that could tie all of the colonies together. Ultimately, the war against Britain led to enough collective effort to form a new nation.

Arguably, these patterns have continued throughout American history. There are moments when Americans are united. After Pearl Harbor, the country was devoted to the war effort. The quest to take over the frontier from the Appalachians westward required the efforts of many. The Cold War was fairly all-encompassing. For a short period after 9/11, Americans came together.

But, the opposite tendency is also very present as well. The long presence of slavery that culminated in a bloody Civil War and insufficient efforts to address the ongoing issues afterward. Acrimonious political divides. Different actors looking out more for their own interests rather than the common good. The polarization and outrage of today.

If today the United States is in a period marked by more disunity than unity, is there a common threat that could again bring people together? Hopefully, a war is not required. There might be no shortage of suggestions from different sides about what should be unifying: fighting racism and inequality, climate change, individual freedom, reproductive rights, a commitment to capitalism, to welcome immigrants or not, religious liberty, fighting diseases, the surveillance state, and so on. Such unity has happened before and it could happen again in ways that might be difficult to foresee in the moment.

(Related earlier post: the relatively few things 90% of Americans agree on.)

Does the population size of the US get in the way?

One idea I’ve had in my mind in recent years is how the population size of the United States interacts with the country’s stated ideals and policies. Is it possible to be the United States with over 320 million residents? When I hear discussions of policy, I am regularly struck by the size of the issue at hand. Healthcare is a good example. Any changes at the Federal level – whether adding to existing policies or retracting what currently exists – would have significant impact on millions of people as well as have a sizable effect on the budget. Additionally, we have multiple layers of government (federal – three branches, state, county, township – not everywhere, municipality, some regulatory and taxing bodies that span these layers) that can sometimes add to the complexity. Furthermore, we are a relatively open society that incorporates many people and comes out with something “American.” We may not be one of the happiest countries in the world but a number of the countries at the top of the list are simply not as socially complex. Indeed, of the 13 countries ahead of the United States, only one is 1/10 the population size (Canada) and the rest don’t come close to that.

On the other hand, we have had an explosion of the Internet and social media that allows us to drill down to individual experience after individual experience. One way to think about social media is that it allows the experiences or opinions of individual actors to reach a wide audience. However, these individual experiences can blur the wider patterns at play. How can we compare anecdotes?

Perhaps the practical question in this: how do we operate between these two scales of a large-scale complex society versus the individual actor? It is not easy to do as either scale has drawbacks and benefits. At the least, it highlights that the “American Experiment” continues, perhaps now less based on our democratic and republican aspirations but more in terms of size and complexity.

Claim: US undergoing secularization, just at a slower pace

Two sociologists argue that the United States is not that unusual regarding secularization trends in the industrialized world:

Most research that compares American religion with religion elsewhere emphasizes the high levels of participation in the United States, and treats those high levels as strong evidence that America is exceptional.

If we look at the trends, though, it appears that the US isn’t a counter-example to the idea that modernization causes problems for religion. On the contrary, religious change in the United States is very similar to what we see elsewhere: long-term decline produced mainly by generational replacement.

This process operates slowly, and it can be counteracted in the short term by short-lived revivals, but it is very difficult to reverse…

Figure 2 – Attendance monthly or more often by decade of birth, United States, 1973-2014

Voas Fig 2

Chaves has been making this argument for a few years now.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. As they note at the end, the interesting question then to ask is why the United States has been slower to follow the secularization trend than other nations. This is not a small question and at least several suggestions have already been made by researchers including World Wars in Europe and the rise of the welfare state.
  2. Researchers are in a unique position if they argue any trend is inevitable. Voas and Chaves may be shown correct if religiosity continues to decline in new generations but it could be decades before the conclusive evidence arises. Additionally, societal patterns can change – even if such changes seem improbable at one time. If a researcher is correct in calling out a trend, they can appear prophetic but if they are wrong, their status may be diminished.

American property taxes have feudal roots

American property taxes have a long history in English law:

The origins of the property tax aren’t American at all. It, instead, has roots that date back to Europe’s feudal system. First instituted in England by William the Conqueror in 1066, the early tax system worked this way: A king (or conqueror) took over all the land in a given territory. He would then divide it among his lieutenants and supporters, who would pay him (with money or services) in order to keep that land. In return, landholders enjoyed the king’s protection and were able to rent the property out to others—who would live and work the land—for a fee. The punishment for nonpayment was forfeiture of the land, which could result in a considerable loss of money and status. At the time, this system was called “free and common socage,” according to John Joseph Wallis, an economic historian at the University of Maryland. The person who held the land was called a socman, his taxes, socage. The arrangement created a way for people to own land while still having to remain loyal to the crown, which also had rights to the land.

After expansion across the Atlantic started, King James made sure that this system traveled overseas with the first settlers at Jamestown, so that he could partake in the profits of exploration of the new land. The charter of the Virginia Company held that—as in feudal times—the king would protect the lands in Jamestown, and in return, the people living on the land would pay him a share of their profits there. All land of the colony would be held in “free and common socage,” according to the Virginia Company charter. This meant that land could be bought and sold in the colonies, as long as the new holder of land continue to pay the king.

And why did the system persist even after the American Revolution?

It’s a peculiar note of history that the founding fathers, who spoke often of abolishing the feudal system, kept this remnant of the Old World. But the rationale is very simple: They needed the money. In fact, the federal government levied a national property tax in 1798, 1814, 1815, 1816, and 1861. The tax in 1798, for example, charged households for their slaves (50 cents), houses, and land. It raised $2 million, according to Wallis. These taxes usually outraged residents, who would often revolt, but the system of collecting property tax remained. That’s because property taxes were locally spent and collected in the beginning, and often paid for things like roads and canals that property owners would be able to see, and that increased the value of their property.

If indeed property taxes are the most hated tax for Americans, I wonder if residents would prefer the alternatives. One advantage of the property tax is that the monies are often spent closer to home, usually on local school districts and municipal services. Eliminate the property tax and taxes may be collected by governmental groups further way that have fewer responsibilities to local residents. Americans may not like property taxes but they do like local control.

 

Gallup: most Americans are proud to be American

In time for July 4th, Gallup has numbers on how many and which Americans feel “extremely proud” of the United States:

Proud to Be an American

In addition to the 54% who are extremely proud to be an American, 27% say they are “very proud,” 14% say they are “moderately proud,” 4% are “only a little proud” and 1% state that they are “not at all proud.”…

While most Americans are proud to be an American, certain groups are especially likely to say they are extremely proud. “Extreme pride” rises for each succeeding age group, from a low of 43% among those under 30 to a high of 64% among senior citizens.

Extreme pride also varies regionally, from a high of 61% in the South to a low of 46% in the West…

How proud are you to be an American --

None of these findings should be too surprising. Yet, one takeaway I have that I haven’t seen noted in the articles about these data is that almost all Americans have some pride in their country. Only 1% were “not at all proud” and then another 4% were “only a little proud.” This may be a product of the categories as well as a patriotic culture. Can you really distinguish between “very proud” and “moderately proud”? If you are “very proud,” what holds people back from being “extremely proud”? Perhaps the best way to get a handle on this would be to compare it to international data.

Sociologist: China to have the most Christians in the world by 2030

In another indicator of the shift of Christianity from the West, one sociologist predicts China will be home to the largest number of Christians by 2030:

“By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule…China’s Protestant community, which had just one million members in 1949, has already overtaken those of countries more commonly associated with an evangelical boom. In 2010 there were more than 58 million Protestants in China compared to 40 million in Brazil and 36 million in South Africa, according to the Pew Research Centre’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Prof Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025. That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.

By 2030, China’s total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, he predicted.

This could lead to a lot of change in China – and change in the United States where many Christians see China as a less-than-Christian country as well as consider their own country to be a (the?) leading Christian nation. Of course, there is some time before this prediction can be assessed and a lot could happen between now and then…

Economic output of American metro areas rival that of foreign countries

One interesting indicator of the economic power of American metropolitan areas is how they match up with the output of foreign countries:

The greater New York metro, far and away America’s largest and richest, is projected to produce $1.4 trillion dollars in GMP in 2014. This makes it about the same size as Australia, equivalent the world’s 12th largest economy.

L.A., projected to account for almost $830 billion in GMP, has a larger economy than that of the Netherlands, and would therefore number among the world’s top 20 economies.

Chicago, with more than $610 billion in GMP, is about the same size as Switzerland and significantly bigger than Sweden…

And even far smaller metros can outpace some substantial national economies. With $180 billion in GMP, Denver’s economy is comparable to that of the entire country of New Zealand. Even Anchorage, Alaska, projected to produce nearly $30 billion in GMP, is about the same size as Latvia.

It strikes me that this is also a pretty fascinating look at America’s economic power overall. If each of these metropolitan areas could be their own city-states, having them all in one country is quite a feat. Of course, if they were split up, this could change their economic output. In fact, it would be interesting to play a what if game with that very question: which would US metros would thrive as independent states and which would falter?

United States now #1 oil-producing country in the world

The United States is again #1 in oil production, passing Saudi Arabia:

The United States has overtaken Saudi Arabia to become the world’s biggest oil producer as the jump in output from shale plays has led to the second biggest oil boom in history, according to leading U.S. energy consultancy PIRA.

U.S. output, which includes natural gas liquids and biofuels, has swelled 3.2 million barrels per day (bpd) since 2009, the fastest expansion in production over a four-year period since a surge in Saudi Arabia’s output from 1970-1974, PIRA said in a release on Tuesday…

Last month, China surpassed the United States as the largest importer of crude, according to the U.S. government, as the rise of domestic output cuts the U.S. dependence on overseas oil.

“(The U.S.) growth rate is greater than the sum of the growth of the next nine fastest growing countries combined and has covered most of the world’s net demand growth over the past two years,” PIRA Energy Group wrote.

Three quick thoughts:

1. People don’t often think of United States as having lots of oil though the natural resources within the US have been important throughout its history. With this new information, does this change how US residents and others around the world view the US? Does it then change how the US views the Middle East and other nations with lots of oil?

2. The article notes that this was the fastest production increase in over four years. The average person may not be terribly aware of this but those opposed to fracking should be able to use this info: this is quite a rapid change.

3. When will peak oil really arrive? One article recently suggested this oil boom is not the last; there is more untapped oil in the oceans. As the article suggests, this supply may make it even more difficult to talk about the impact of oil on the environment.

Sociologist: Canadians and Americans are more alike than people might think

A Canadian sociologist argues that Americans and Canadians are quite similar:

But experts suggest English Canadians — though the QMI Agency poll found we’re still divided whether stereotyping is widespread — are alike on most fronts.

In fact, so much so that most of us could blend in with our U.S. cousins, according to one scholar.

Ed Grabb, a professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Sociology, has begun a new course outlining how Canadians and Americans, while not identical, are more alike than most of us would have thought.

In fact, on things like attitudes toward health care, government and individuality, research has found we’re very similar.

Even differences in religion are shrinking. In 1991, Americans were 16% more likely than Canadians to take in a religious service at least once a week.

By 2006, that number had dropped to 11%.

While Grabb sees regional differences in both countries — during national elections, Quebec generally pulls Canada to the left just as the southern U.S. pulls that nation to the right — he’s also noticed a softening of old hackneyed chestnuts.

“I do think the Alberta redneck jibe is an endangered species,” Grabb said.

“I think that the assumption that all Ontarians are affluent is also going by the boards.

It would be interesting to see comparisons across the board: income, political and social views (both at home and abroad), religion, education, and consumer purchases and entertainment choices. Then, compare these to what Americans and Canadians think about each other. Why do I think Canadians would know way more about Americans than the other way around?

I also want to know how to explain this. Both the United States and Canada are settler colonies but we have different histories as Canada has had a different relationship with Great Britain in the last few centuries. Perhaps people might fall back on the frontier hypothesis since both countries pursued territorial expansion and span between two different (geographically and cultural) coasts. Perhaps today we tend to share a lot of media and cultural influences. For example, how many Americans care or would they have been able to tell without being told that Justin Bieber is Canadian. Perhaps our geopolitical position away from major international wars has led to similar ways of viewing the world. Perhaps the better way to differentiate between the countries is to refer to the “Jesusland” map where Canada joins with the East and West American coasts plus some of the Great Lakes states and red America is the south, great plains, and mountain west.